Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 played a significant part in what was a wonderful year for women’s sport in general, breaking all manner of records on and off the pitch and taking the game to another level.
More so than any other edition, Ireland 2017 captured the imagination beyond the sport’s traditional reach. Viewership and social engagement records were smashed, new stars were born and, yet again, the performance bar was raised by the world’s top players and teams.
Just over 1,500 points were scored across the tournament’s 30 matches with an average of over eight tries per game, culminating in a tremendous final between the Black Ferns and defending champions England.
Broadcast on primetime Saturday evening television in the UK, the concluding match at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium in Belfast attracted a peak audience of 2.65million on ITV1 alone, with many more fans captivated elsewhere around the globe as the sides served up an 11-try classic.
Portia Woodman led the way on the individual scoring front with 13 of her side’s 49 tries, including eight in the 121-0 defeat of tournament debutants Hong Kong. She was later named World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year, shortly after the Black Ferns scooped the Team of the Year prize – the first female team to do so in the 17-year history of the World Rugby Awards.
While New Zealand and England were the dominant forces throughout the tournament, there was plenty of quality elsewhere and this was reflected in the make-up of the end-of-tournament Dream Team which featured six different nationalities, including Japan scrum-half Moe Tsukui who, at 17, was the youngest player at WRWC 2017.
New Zealand, England and France topped their respective pools to make it through to the last four, while former winners USA reached the semi-finals for the first time in 19 years as the best-placed runner-up.
With exceptional talents like Cheta Emba and Naya Tapper running rings around the opposition out wide and Sara Parsons hitting it up through the middle when the need arose, the Women’s Eagles gave rise to the hope that former glories could one day be restored.
In the first semi-final, USA countered every attack from New Zealand with one of their own in an enthralling opening to the match and only found themselves eight points in arrears at half-time. However, New Zealand’s extra nous and class eventually told with Woodman supplying four tries in a 45-12 victory, including one which was later shortlisted for IRPA Try of the Year 2017.
The other semi-final was an all-Six Nations affair as defending champions England took on a French side trying to make it into the final for the first time at the seventh attempt. Les Bleues lived with England for just over an hour, keeping their line intact until tight-head prop and player of the match Sarah Bern barged her way over to turn the tide in England’s favour. Replacement Megan Jones added another at the death, while makeshift full-back Emily Scarratt converted both tries and kicked two penalties in a hard-fought 20-3 victory.
So, for the fourth time in the tournament's history, England and New Zealand would meet in a Women’s Rugby World Cup final. Nothing, though, could prepare anyone for what lay in store as New Zealand, 17-5 down at half-time after conceding a penalty try and one from Lydia Thompson, stormed back in the second half to win 41-32. This time their hero was not Woodman or fellow speedster, Selica Winiata, but prop Toka Natua, her hat-trick helping to ensure New Zealand captain Fiao’o Faamausili bowed out with her fourth title.
France had earlier edged an equally entertaining bronze final with USA 31-23 with the evergreen hooker and captain Gaelle Mignot among their try-scorers.
As the best-attended, the most-viewed and the most-talked-about tournament, WRWC 2017 will take some beating!